James Bond leads movie slate making October new July for cinemas

Daniel Craig in "No Time to Die." ( MGM Studios/TNS)
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Brian Eckhouse Bloomberg News (TNS)

October is turning into the type of month theater chains have wished for since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — stacked with big movies like the new James Bond film, “No Time to Die.”

The month, often a showcase for low-budget horror films and awards wannabes, looks more like summertime this year. Marvel’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” set a record for an October opening at Cinemark Holdings Inc., one of the largest theater companies. It was also the biggest debut of the COVID era for the chain.

“You don’t get a $90 million opening weekend like we just had for ‘Venom’ if there’s not a real desire for the public to come out,” Mark Zoradi, Cinemark’s chief executive officer, said in an interview this week.

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That’s led to optimism that the month may bookend a traumatic stretch for both exhibitors and Hollywood studios.

The pandemic closed theaters and led studios to shelve their biggest movies, giving cinemas little to show even when they finally reopened. Now theaters are back, COVID cases are easing from recent peaks, and fans can expect a regular cadence of big premieres.

But that too is another test for the industry — whether enough consumers are comfortable sitting in a crowded theater. Studios have been dribbling out releases in recent months — some only in theaters, some on streaming platforms for free or at a premium price, and some in both places at once.

And while box office results seesawed heading into the month, the industry has grown hopeful that the $207 million “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” has made in North America since its early September opening suggests a long-awaited bounce back.

Zoradi previously anticipated that the recovery would start over the summer — “and then this horrible little thing called the Delta variant hit,” he said.

Now, “all of the key elements are saying, ‘This is the beginning of the recovery,’” he said.

“Venom,” a sequel to a 2018 Sony Group Corp. release, was joined in U.S. theaters Friday by the latest Bond movie from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. The prospects are bright for “No Time to Die,” which scored the biggest-ever U.K. opening last weekend for a Bond movie. It’ll be followed in the U.S. by “Halloween Kills” from Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures on Oct. 15 and “Dune” from AT&T Inc.’s Warner Bros. on Oct. 22.

As of Oct. 7, Boxoffice Pro was forecasting a North American opening of as much as $105 million for the Bond film — that would be the best yet during the pandemic.

Seen one way, the big-budget movies will duel for eyeballs and thus dollars. Seen another: the movies appeal to different audiences — Bond perhaps to an older crowd, the “Venom” sequel to younger viewers and “Dune” to those seeking more high-brow content.

“That’s four tentpoles,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice Pro. “That’s a pretty heavy slate. But the counterargument: there’s pent-up demand.

Next year promises a strong roster of movies, including the postponed “Top Gun” sequel and the much-anticipated “Avatar 2.”

And many of those films will debut only in cinemas — a key wish for theater operators that were hurt when new pictures were released online. Zoradi, who is retiring at year-end, said Cinemark has commitments from all of the major studios, except Walt Disney Co., to give theaters exclusive rights of varying lengths to first-run movies in 2022.

“Disney has only committed through ’21, but they’ve also been very clear that they were happy with the results of ‘Shang-Chi’ and ‘Free Guy,’” Zoradi said.

Shares of Plano, Texas-based Cinemark have risen 23% this year, but that gain masks a volatile year for investors who have seen the stock gain as much as 59% in a month and lose nearly as much in another. Larger rival AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., a popular meme stock this year, has also registered huge swings.

“We’re just returning to the way the business used to be,” Zoradi said.

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